Kaman Engineers Find Their Inner Artist Designing for the Aerospace Industry

Whether it’s a decorative flare on a plane’s landing gear, a hollowed-out spherical bearing that fits into an airliner’s door or gold-plated ball bearings, Kaman Corp. is applying artistry to otherwise unremarkable bearings and components.

Applying art to manufacturing products is gaining traction in competitive markets where any edge can win the attention of prized customers.

That’s particularly true for the Bloomfield aerospace and industrial parts company, founded in 1945 by Charles Kaman, an engineer and pioneer in rotary-winged flight who also was a musician and designer of the Ovation guitar.

Kaman died in 2011 at age 91. His image is featured on a mural at the Bloomfield offices and his principles endure in an “embedded culture of creativity” that was fostered by Glen Narkon, the company’s engineering manager — and a painter — who retired in 2001, said Mathew Mormino, vice president of engineering at Kaman Speciatly Bearings and Engineered Products.

For engineers, designing a product is by its nature creative and — following the idea — begins with a sketch, Mormino said. “This is how art and engineering come together,” he said.

Kaman, which posted $1.8 billion in revenue last year, builds helicopters and aerospace parts and components. Its business also includes an industrial division, making automation, controls, bearings and power transmission.

Many of the bearings, in addition to being critical for safe flying, are already “highly designed,” Mormino said. Kamatics, a part of Kaman's aerospace segment, can influence the design of a product that can include aesthetics even when its customers have done much of the design and analysis before it arrives at Kaman.

Kristofer Kolstad, vice president of marketing and business development, said Kaman Specialty Bearings and Engineered Products has been looking for ways to up its game in marketing, to differentiate itself from its competitors with components that are “eloquent, simple and highly functional.”

“Art helps you communicate your innovation,” he said.

For example, gold-plated ball bearings used in pumps and valves are not only attractive, they’re functional, too, because gold does not corrode when used with lubricants.

And Kaman designers call for anodizing a metal with a protective layer, creating an eye-pleasing blue.

While much of what Kaman manufactures is hidden from view, as in an airplane’s landing gear and highly engineered pressurized cabin doors, the company is using catalogs, customer visits and trade shows to impress customers such as airlines and large manufacturers, including United Technologies Corp., that sell countless parts and systems to its airline customers.

New markets also are emerging among dot-com billionaires launching specialized aerospace and space exploration companies, Kolstad said. The entrepreneurs provide new opportunities for niche markets, and they respond with surprise when they learn what Kaman can make.

“You’ll design a custom bearing for me?” is one question Kolstad has heard from new customers.

Michael Accorsi, senior associate dean of the University of Connecticut School of Engineering, said engineering is an “incredibly creative process,” not too different from what goes into art.

“It’s just that the principles are different, the objectives are different,” he said.

Like artists who use different mediums, engineers work with different-colored metals and minerals with varying surfaces, allowing more leeway in design and construction of parts, he said.

As an art object, airplanes can easily be overlooked. Once romanticized as the realization of a centuries-long dream by humans to fly, they are now taken for granted and derided as cramped and crowded metal tubes in the sky with overstuffed baggage compartments and too little leg room.

Accorsi said that at a local manufacturer recently, he saw an airfoil — the shape of a wing or propeller blade — cut to high precision from stainless steel and titanium.

“They are utterly beautiful,” he said. “An art gallery would love to be showing these.”

Other industries and products adopt art to win over consumers. Apple, for example, has long been cited for the design of its ever-shrinking computers.

And architects try to create beauty, with Accorsi citing R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome as an example of art and function.

“You look at it and it’s just so elegant,” he said. “The mathematics produce something that’s so strikingly beautiful to people.”

Krisztina Holly, a Los Angeles entrepreneur, has focused on the connection between designing and making things in a podcast she hosts, “The Art of Manufacturing,” which connects the area’s “creative community with the manufacturing base.”

The large aerospace industry and strong presence of automotive design in Los Angeles have combined to make the region a center of manufacturing and art, she said.

“Artistry is more than just your everyday mechanistic part of being a manufacturer,” Holly said.

Mormino uses his spare time making wood carvings.

“Give me a block of wood and a knife and I’ll find what’s hiding in it,” he said.

As Kaman turns out parts with just the right angle, shape or color, the manufacturer could upend a common misperception of his occupation, Mormino said.

“I think engineers get a bad rap for being too techy. They have a very keen eye for what looks right,” he said.

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